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Lib Dems seem powerless to stop the Labour squeeze

December 7, 2019

This has been the most dismal General Election campaign in my lifetime. The issues we face as a country have never been greater outside of wartime but no party has been capable of creating an engaging vision that addresses societal and economic divisions, the spectre of isolationism and the threat of climate change.

The two major parties have lurched to their extremes. Both are led by people it would have been unthinkable to have had at their helm a decade ago. Both have expelled or forced out moderating influences and both have produced manifestos that are frightening in their extremity. In doing so, they have left a gapping hole in the centre of British politics. It should have been an open goal for the Liberal Democrats but they have contrived to miss it completely.

Now, as we enter the last week of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats are being subjected to a relentless squeeze by Labour and seem powerless to stop it.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the Liberal Democrats themselves took an extreme position on Brexit: Revoke Article 50.

This was a worthwhile attempt to break out of the sterility of the Brexit debate but it was not thought through. It was based on the premise that it could happen only if the Liberal Democrats achieved a majority of MPs. Indeed, to demonstrate true democratic legitimacy for this policy the Liberal Democrats would have had to have commanded well over 50% of the popular vote: clearly, a fantasy.

That was not the biggest flaw, however. What really let them down was not having a narrative to support that policy in terms of what would come next. To my mind the only sensible development of that policy would have been to argue that revoking Article 50 would give us time to re-set the Brexit debate, free of the pressure of endless deadlines. This could have been used to sort out some of the important unresolved issues such as what happens to health insurance, motor insurance, expatriate pension rights and so on. Having done this, and this is the important point Jo Swinson’s team ignored, the decision could then be put back to the country in a referendum with either May’s or Johnson’s deal plus clarifications against a Remain option. If this referendum voted to Leave then, with a deal already agreed, this could happen quickly. The failure to promise a referendum has turned away people who would have otherwise supported the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats should have had Labour on the back-foot over Brexit. Many Labour MPs support Brexit. They consistently voted against holding another referendum in the last Parliament. Corbyn talks about negotiating a “sensible” Brexit deal, one that many Labour MPs will be able to support in a referendum. Labour cannot be trusted to stop Brexit but the Liberal Democrats have failed to seize opportunities to hammer that message home.

Labour is eating into the Liberal Democrat vote

The obsession with having a distinctive Brexit policy seems to have left the Liberal Democrats exposed on broader policies. There are many worthy policies in their manifesto but they are not drawn together by any sort of coherant narrative. This has allowed other parties, especially Labour, to construct their own narrative for the Liberal Democrats. With the centre ground wide open the Liberal Democrats have failed to position themselves on the political spectrum with any clarity. This has allowed Labour to position them as centre-right and start the relentless squeeze of their vote.

This Labour campaign is intensifying. Look at the social media posts of Labour supporters. They are full of terms such as “LibCons” and “Yellow Tories” and claims that Swinson will support Johnson in a hung Parliament. the disastrous legacy of the Coalition looms large here. The Liberal Democrats have done little to combat this and are now losing the votes of progressives who would normally be repelled by Labour’s statist agenda.

They appear powerless to stop Labour squeezing their vote. It could be grim week for them.

From → Politics

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